B&W, 1963, 84m. / Directed by Richard L. Hilliard / Starring Lee Phillips, Kaye Elhardt, James Farentino, Sylvia Miles, Dick Van Patten / Dark Sky (US R1 NTSC)

Following the success of Psycho, Connecticut-based producer/director Del Tenney decided to cook up his own twisted knife-slashing tale for his second production. Though credited to Richard Hilliard, Tenney apparently was the major creative force behind the film's conception and execution, which isn't surprising considering his later transposition of many of the same ideas to a period setting in his Curse of the Living Corpse. Here the twisty tale concerns war vet Elliot Freeman (TV staple Phillips), who spends his days painting female nudes in his backyard and trying to suppress memories of his father's violent hunting-related gunshot death (seen as a pre-credits sequence). While out at a jukebox joint with his latest muse, Dolores (Elhardt), they come across her hot-tempered biker ex, Charlie (Farentino), who hangs out with sassy bar dame Silvia (Miles). When Dolores is brutally stabbed to death by a black-clad maniac, the investigating detective (a slim Van Patten) points the finger at Freeman... but there's more than meets the eye.

Released at a time when Hammer and William Castle were churning out Psycho copies left and right, Violent Midnight (better known to TV viewers as Psychomania) isn't extraordinary enough to really stand out from the pack but does make for a diverting evening's viewing. The level of violence and nudity is a bit higher than normal for the period (a wise commercial move that unfortunately meant TV screenings were rendered pretty much worthless), but it's the supporting cast that will really turn a pop culture fan's head; Farentino in particular goes full-throttle nasty in his biker bully mode, while Miles is magnetic as always with her wonderful gravelly voice.

Unlike Tenney's two subsequent also released by Dark Sky, Violent Midnight is presented full frame. The open matte framing looks fine here (note the very generous dead space throughout at the top and bottom of the screen), though the film also crops off nicely enough to 1.78:1 on a widescreen monitor. Audio is presented in English mono, with optional English subtitles. Extras include trailers for Horror of Party Beach and Curse of the Living Corpse (but not for this film), while Tenney himself turns up for a commentary track moderated by Shade Rupe. It's not as packed with useful facts as the other two films, but there are still some nice bits of trivia scattered here and there, making this a solid addition to the preservation of drive-in horror history.

B&W, 1964, 78m. / Directed by Del Tenney / Starring John Scott, Allan Laurel, Alice Lyon, Marilyn Clark, Eulabelle

B&W, 1964, 84m. / Directed by Del Tenney / Starring Margot Hartman, Roy Scheider, Robert Milli, Candace Hilligoss / Dark Sky (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)

Though he couldn't make much of a splash with his long-shelved debut feature, I Eat Your Skin, producer/director Del Tenney went back behind the camera for two considerably more interesting gore-spattered shockers, ideally paired up as a double bill on their first run where they shocked viewers who might not have yet run into H.G. Lewis' Blood Feast. Reunited again on DVD, these 1964 wonders are still quite startling with their strong injections of gore and sexuality into films that otherwise feel like quaint AIP-style romps.

Speaking of AIP, the first film under consideration here, The Horror of Party Beach, managed to combine the "Beach Party" antics popularized by Frankie and Annette with the radioactive horrors which rose to prominence in the Atomic Age. (In turn, this film inspired a whole new wave of beach monster films, commencing with 1965's Beach Girls and the Monster.) The story is basically another variation on that old chestnut about radioactive waste getting dumped into the ocean, where horrific creatures are spawned and go on a murderous rampage. Fortunately the local teen population tends to hang out and practice their swinging dance moves on the beach, so the bikini-clad pickings seem to be prime. The first to go is pretty Tina (Clark), whose lunkhead jock boyfriend Hank (Scott) enlists the aid of Elaine (Lyon) and her scientist dad (Laurel) to figure out who's responsible for the crime. Meanwhile the monsters pick off an entire slumber party and show no signs of slowing down!

Fun and irredeemably trashy, The Horror of Party Beach goes straight for the teen-audience jugular by packing in music numbers (including the catchy "Zombie Stomp"), lots of twisting in tiny bathing suits, goofy-looking aquatic monsters that probably inspired Sid & Marty Krofft, and reams of hokey dialogue. Unfortunately it's been pretty much impossible to see uncut after its initial run, with TV prints and all VHS releases (except for one edition in Canada) dropping all of the bloodshed, including the entire slumber party sequence. Easily the film's horrific high point, this weird, semi-expressioinist sequence takes place almost entirely in darkness with jarring views of the girls' mutilated bodies, intercut with shots of the monsters' shadowy figures and groping hands. Quite disturbing on its own terms, this passage is even more effective given the fairly innocuous, upbeat material surrounding it. Dark Sky's edition restores all of this footage, which should help the film's reputation after years of savaging in the wake of its mutilated appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which caused most viewers to ponder, "Where's the Horror?").

Its co-feature, The Curse of the Living Corpse, fared better with the censors over the years, though it still boasts a few moments of brutality capable of raising an eyebrow. Once again the story is no great shakes, basically a bloodier rehash of a typical old dark house potboiler as we open with the funeral of wealthy Rufus Sinclair, whose 19th century estate now harbors a horde of greedy relatives eager to hear the reading of the will. However, the catatonically-inclined Rufus was pathologically afraid of being buried alive and indicated certain precautions in his last will and testament; unfortunately, his wishes were ignored, which means his threats of rising from the dead to kill everyone off one by one might be fulfilled. Indeed, the ensuing hours become a bloodbath as victims ranging his offspring to the hired help become prey for a ruthless, cloaked killer who feeds on the victims' worst fears.

Considerably more ambitious and artistically accomplished than its companion film, Curse features a nice period mood and some decent performances, including a prominent role for a pre-Jaws Roy Scheider in his feature debut and a mostly wasted turn by a post-Carnival of Souls Candace Hilligoss. The relaxing censorship standards of the time mean that Tenney can indulge in a bit of skin and some ghoulish visuals, including facial mutilation and the film's most famous image, a sexy maid's head getting served up on a silver platter. As far as atmospheric post-Psycho shockers go, this would also play quite nicely with the likes of Dementia 13 or Paranoiac. In turn, you don't have to stretch much to see the influence of this film and its ilk on '70s Z-budget stalwart Andy Milligan, whose Ghastly Ones owes a particular debt to this film's violent shenanigans. Curl up on a dark, spooky night and enjoy.

Presented with anamorphic widescreen transfers initially prepared for the Monsters HD channel, Dark Sky's double feature DVD features crisp, clear editions of both films. The widescreen framing looks fine throughout Party Beach; however, the framing occasionally looks tight on Curse (which is usually screened open matte on TV, and in fact, the main titles here are still shown pillarboxed at 1.33:1) but not enough to really detract from the film. The features also include optional English subtitles, so you can practice your hipster lingo next time you head to a beach party. The still-busy Tenney pops up quite a bit on the DVD, offering thorough audio commentaries for both features as well as a video interview. He covers all the bases here, from financing to distribution to the funny little problems faced with mounting two horror films on limited means. The original trailers for both films are also included.

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